By Daniel Stroe – Bucharest
It wasn’t long before corrupted officials in Romania regrouped to cope with the central anti-corruption prosecutors who went on an arrest spree among those who have always emanated the air of impunity. Panicked before this unprecedented bout of anti-corruption, the “local barons” found a way to shield themselves from corruption charges.
The week started with the PM Victor Ponta visiting the flooded areas in Teleorman County, just a stone’s throw from Bucharest. The head of government’s concern for the fate of his citizens didn’t stand out, what stood out was the manner in which he chose to inspect the devastated region. With the water level not exceeding one foot, Ponta and his deputy Liviu Dragnea got on an inflatable boat and let themselves dragged by a group of firemen along the mud streets of a flooded village. The picture quickly made the headlines and embarrassed the young prime-minister too concerned not to wet his stylish rubber boots instead of treading the low level water and leaving the impression of an official really preoccupied about the situation on the ground. The scene was completed by Ponta being overheard by the media talking rudely to a female minister who was accompanying him on the same boat, even though they both later denied the rude language.
As the national amusement around the PM’s uninspired boat ride faded, the eye turned towards a draft law which, coincidence or not, comes amid a wave of arrests among the ruling party’s so-called “local barons”, powerful local officials, such as mayors and heads of county councils. In a nutshell, these amendments brought to the public administration law extend the group of subordinates a mayor or a president of a county council can delegate responsibilities to. So far, a mayor, for instance, could only delegate prerogatives to his deputy or the secretary-general of the town hall. Since the responsibilities are delegated to a wider group of people, if a crime is committed, such as tax evasion, influence peddling or any other corruption related issue, the finger is pointed at the subordinate who signed an incriminating document and not the mayor. Since only mayors and county councils heads can be investigated by DNA (Anti-Corruption Department), a central anti-corruption institution, the suspected subordinates will be investigated by local prosecutors who can be more flexible and, why not, liable to influence, unlike the DNA prosecutors. So, in the end, in close cooperation with his subordinates, a mayor can proceed to corrupted acts without fearing DNA will nab him or her. Dealing with local investigators present a higher chance of an inquiry being finally buried under the pressure exerted by the “local barons” but which is now ineffective in case of DNA’s prosecutors. The civil society reacted and warned such amendments would severely cut the
“Do not bring to Cotroceni (presidential palace) a man who is dependent on local barons, such as Victor Ponta. He will baronize the country” Basescu urged the citizens this week. Romania will hold presidential elections in November and Basescu can no longer run after two successive terms. PM Ponta, the social-democrat leader and Basescu’s arch-rival, is for now the favorite to take over the first job in the country, even if Basescu’s camp has not launched any candidate in the race yet.
Basescu pleaded for a modest politician and not one bent on gaining fortunes during the presidential term to succeed him. “It is the high time for a politician who had nothing in common with the former regime” he said, referring to communism (…) a man with a capacity of political negotiation (…) and a politician who entered politics with an apartment and which candidacy also finds him in the same apartment” Basescu said, pointing out Daniel Morar, former head of DNA and a well seen figure in the West, fits his description. It is the first time Morar’s name comes up in this debate on who from the rightist parties might join the race against social-democrat Victor Ponta.
Basescu also pointed out the power so-called “local barons” has reached high levels and highlighted the leverage they have in relation to the central authorities. “In many cases they appointed ministers”, he said, proposing measures to cut their influence. “It’s not only the electoral law, but maybe limiting to two the terms a county council head can have may be a solution” the President said.
Another solution is de-politicization of the decentralized institutions in every county. “In every county, some sorts of families are created – the chief of police, the head of the education department, of the agricultural department, the fiscal agency – they are all appointed based on political influence. Even prosecutors fall into this trap whether they like to be under the county cupola or not” Basescu added, saying in these cases central anti-corruption authorities have to run investigations, not the local ones.
This is exactly why the above-mentioned legal changes have been brought forward by those fearing the central anti-corruption prosecutors. Late last year, the lawmakers tried to amend the Penal Code so they shield themselves from corruption charges, but the move drew the ire of the West and prompted Washington to send an envoy to Bucharest to warn Romanian politicians to behave. The step was abandoned then, but the new anti-corruption drive seems to be shaking the social-democrats’ ranks again and the pressure on Victor Ponta grows. With the country going into the electoral campaign for the Euro-elections on 25 May, “the local barons” may be a resurgent electoral topic which the divided opposition could easily use against the almighty social-democrat ruling party.